The spectacle that was Michael Jackson’s death continued this week. There were tributes to his contributions of music, movement, and style. Remembrance of Jackson-related bizarre—masks, animals, amusement park home—and Jackson-related disturbing—his plastic surgeries, face whitening, alleged molestation of young “friends,” tacitly physician-supported drug habit and means by which he obtained his children and often seemed to hide them—continued, too, along with a huge funereal event (to call it a funeral somehow doesn’t exactly explain the Staples Center/win free tickets/see umpteen stars extravaganza). Observers like Melissa Harris-Lacewell on the Nation blog noted that despite Jackson’s morphing from black man to somewhat cryptic-gendered and whitish, his funeral followed African American traditions.
Also writing for the Nation, Patricia Williams reflected upon Jackson’s permutations of race, class, and gender, along with a life-sized (but shrunken; many reports suggested that he hovered around 100 pounds at the time of his death) exhibit of how someone might appear and act after suffering abuse as a child (an extreme, theatrical example, to be sure). In Mirror Man, Williams writes: “It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.”
If Mr. Jackson was concerned with—for which he apparently took great pains—“passing,” there was no such option for a group of African American campers in Philadelphia this week. A group membership purchased for Creative Steps Inc. campers at the Valley Club in Huntington, a Northeastern suburb surrounding Philadelphia, were unceremoniously dismissed from the club after members balked at hosting all those dark-skinned children in the pool. Just one swim into the summer camp’s season, the private swim club returned the camp’s payment for pool access. The story, reported by the local news station, went viral over the Internet and was written about widely and swiftly. The camp is considering legal action; Girard College—a local boarding school for low-income students—offered the camp its pool for free (in fact, offers of all kinds of support for the camp are pouring in); and there is no doubt that for those children, many whom had never crossed the line from Northeast Philadelphia to those very white suburbs, the slap of discrimination must be somewhat soothed by the instant outrage and attendant support in the incident’s wake. Of course, nothing takes the initial sting away.
In her piece Racism in the Pool, also on the Nation blog, Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes of the first time her daughter, then in kindergarten, encountered a racist remark when a boy in the playground said, "You know, I would like you better if you would take off your brown skin and put on some white skin." Her daughter was hurt and confused, and Harris-Lacewell writes that her daughter “wasn't completely sure what it meant, but I could hear in her voice the creeping, sticky shame of inferiority. I sat listening with my stomach in my feet and a voice in my head screaming, ‘Not yet. It's only kindergarten. Not yet. Not yet.’"
Having grown up in Philadelphia, the pool story hit me hard. Even without watching the news feed, I could hear those harsh Northeast accents, and remember the extremes of white cops and poor black civilians during the era when Frank Rizzo wielded power. If nothing else imprinted my belief that racism is piggish and horrible, it was my understanding, just through glimmers—the way children sometimes catch pieces of stories, if not the entirety—how pervasive racism was in my city at that time. Frank Rizzo was the worst man I’d ever really known about, looming larger during my elementary school years than others known to be evil, like Nixon or Hitler. He was right there, for one, omnipresent, and besides being extremely bigoted, he was greedy and corrupt. I had nightmares about police cars. What’s more, during those years, I think I fancied my family—and many of my friends’ families—as part of the “good team” taking on these wrongs. My father was an educator, and ran two public schools in Philadelphia in the 1960’s and 1970’s, first the Pennsylvania Advancement School, which was a rigorous program to help African American middle school boys, the second, the Durham Child Development Center, an elementary school of its time, with open classrooms, a Headstart program, a small classroom for very young teenage mothers (middle school age). The school, which was, by design, integrated black and white, was at 16th and Lombard Streets, smack downtown, a block from a severely poor, challenged neighborhood. Many, but not all of the white kids came from privileged backgrounds—if not economically wealthy, then in other ways, artistically or educationally so—from families that felt this school was not only vibrant and exciting, but satisfied their ideals.
This week, between Jackson and the pool and that swirl that can be kicked up of memories from childhood has me thinking a lot about “passing.” We adopted our now-seventeen-month-old at birth. She is a very pale, biracial girl. While ours is an open adoption, the openness extends only from her maternal side, which is white. Her Jamaican father opposed the adoption (although he signaled his intent to contest, he stopped shy of taking formal steps to prove DNA or file with the agencies necessary seek custody) and he never sought contact (or requested photographs, even). As it is, she not only “passes” as white—like the wonderful board book of photographs, Shades of Black, we read quite frequently affirms black children look every which way—she also “passes” as “ours,” by which I mean biologically tethered to us. People constantly see a physical resemblance, and then assume—as they assume she’s white—that she’s “mine.” Each time this comes up, I experience a momentary hesitation: what do I say in response? I don’t want her color or her being adopted to constantly define her and yet I don’t want to deny either reality (to the contrary, really). For now, when it feels easy, I say more and other times, I don’t. Her first cousin—mother’s sister’s daughter—has asked over this past year whether Saskia will know she’s adopted. The answer is yes, as in, I think it’s going to emerge as part of her truth about herself rather than a revelation shared at a specific, anticipated or even planned moment. My best guess is that we’ll be talking about and thinking about adoption a great deal as she grasps the meaning of adoption and embraces her identity. I’m especially grateful she has that access to so much family.
I am less clear how well the Jamaican heritage and sense of racial identity will emerge, or how ably we’ll support her in finding it, even with good intentions. Because it may be—given her lightness, given the whiteness of her family—that in order to embrace her blackness, she’ll have to assert it. Blackness is not her obvious calling card. This week gave me another chance to hold the complexity of Saskia’s identity, and do so in this context: she is not alone in having a complex identity in a complicated, often contradictory country—one that elected two white Southerners, one of humble origins, the other with a hardscrabble story, as President in recent decades, and just months ago, its first African American—but hasn’t reckoned poverty, racism, sexism or other forms of intolerance and bigotry. My best hope is that I can support her in appreciating the intricacies of her story and in loving herself. Where she takes her experiences and how she brings her narrative into the world is hers to discover.